On the same path but perhaps on a different road

According to websites dedicated to the various pilgrimages on offer around the globe − and there are many I can tell you − a pilgrim ‘is a traveller who has come from afar who is on a journey to a holy place or gathering who often makes their journey on foot’.

It is a journey of wonderment, discovery and enlightenment, they say, taken alone or with others on the same path but perhaps on a different road. My most recent opportunity to be part of a pilgrimage certainly ticked all of the pilgrim/pilgrimages boxes.

I had an opportunity to travel to Krakow Poland as the WYD Chaplain. What a remarkable experience and what a privilege to journey with some 70 other pilgrims from this diocese to travel across parts of Italy following in the footsteps of the Saints with all days leading to WYD16.

The pilgrimage to and through WYD took an incredible 27 days, walking from 10 to 20 kilometres a day, with anything from 70 to two million other pilgrims, all standing in awe and wonderment at the foot of this saint or that, or indeed marveling at the words of Pope Francis, or quite literally jockeying for space in a place of devotion or on the road to the Vigil site.

I loved the catechesis on WYD. Our catechists in Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York, Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga and Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra-Goulburn were incredible in sharing their personal faith in light of the Year of Mercy. Absolutely inspirational! Anyone listening couldn’t help but feel the power of God’s Word lived in them and all those gathered. For young people particularly, but also for all of us older members present, it was very uplifting to share faith with enthusiastic and energised young people from all over the world and to know the joy of being Catholic and Christian offered great hope to all of us for the future.

That said, one of my most memorable personal moments occurred in the retreat centre of St Francis of Assisi at the famous ‘Eremo Delle Carceri’. This beautiful place sits about four kilometres above the old town of Assisi. Our pilgrimage led us to this reflective place where it is said having given up on the people of Assisi he was called to preach to the animals and the birds. You can feel his presence.

I remember descending through the centre with ever narrowing stairs and every decreasing door sizes, and feeling the challenge physically of getting through to the spot where Francis himself stood and prayed. As I stood literally where St Francis stood, feeling completely stripped of worldly possessions except for one small bag, I remember thinking how small and insignificant so many of my plans and ambitions seemed. One of the other pilgrims reflected “you get here only with less ego”!

The whole process seemed designed to strip away all those things that don’t matter, until you are left standing in that holy place with the one thing that does actually matter, quite simply yourself, simply yourself standing with God. It didn’t matter that there were other pilgrims present; you were just there with God.

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